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State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, shows a gun he bought without a background check to the House Civil Justice subcommittee in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. The committee later defeated Stewarts bill seeking to require background checks for all gun purchases in Tennessee. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
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Workers prepare to move House Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams into office space formerly occupied by Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart.
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State Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, shows a gun he bought without a background check to the House Civil Justice subcommittee in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 23, 2016. The committee later defeated Stewart’s bill seeking to require background checks for all gun purchases in Tennessee. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
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House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
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NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell has forced the chamber's second-ranking Democrat, an outspoken critic, from his stand-alone office suite to shared space with a Democratic colleague in Legislative Plaza.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, who like Harwell represents Nashville, was moved Monday into the office suite of Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.

The move leaves Democrats, who have 25 members in the 99-member House, without a conference meeting room.

Harwell's spokeswoman, Kara Owen, insisted the decision wasn't payback for Stewart, who has been one of Harwell's fiercest critics.

Rather, Owen said, Stewart's space was needed by House Republicans' recently elected caucus chairman, Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, who is moving from his previous War Memorial Building suite down to Legislative Plaza.

Stewart during the 2015 and 2016 session hammered away at Harwell on issues ranging from the failure of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed Insure Tennessee Medicaid expansion proposal to the sexual harassment scandal that eventually led to the House's expulsion of then-Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, last year.

Another Stewart hit: Passage of a GOP-backed DUI law that threatened to cost the state $60 million in federal funds. Lawmakers met in a special session to repeal the new law and seized the opportunity to expel Durham, as well.

The Tennessee Democratic Party, meanwhile, went all out to defeat Harwell in her November general election. They failed.

Harwell's leadership was challenged post-election in the 74-member strong GOP Caucus. She beat Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, defeating him 40-30 in her bid for a fourth term.

When announcing House committee assignments earlier this month as the new 110th General Assembly convened for its organizational session, Harwell stripped Matlock of his coveted chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee.

In a December interview, a Times Free Press reporter asked Harwell about Democrats' all-out assault on her.

"I was disappointed and obviously it didn't work," she said.

Asked whether she intended to retaliate, Harwell hesitated momentarily before saying, "I just encourage the Democrats to keep on doing what you're doing.

"It obviously is doing well for Republicans," Harwell added, laughing.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

This story was updated Jan. 23 at 11:55 p.m.

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